Honestly I have never thought much about the process of reading. I have thought about the texts I’ve read and the information or meaning they conveyed. But how the text is presented is something I have always taken for granted. This is an issue that has become so much more relevant with the growth of screen-reading. Most of our reading is now done on-screen whether it is computer monitors, smart-phone screens or tablets. We read from these sources differently which means that the text must be conveyed in a different format to suit our new needs.

This discomfort people have with these new mediums is best seen in the attitude towards eReaders. Most people who dislike eReaders will say that it is because they like the feel of a book and turning pages. This is an experience that cannot be replicated with eReaders or tablets and there is a danger that we are losing the physical qualities of books. But this is not a new danger. Christian Vandendorpe likens the potential demise of the book to the demise of the volumen or scroll in the first century AD. The codex, the Latin word for ‘booklet’, was adapted by early Christians because it was cheaper allowing both sides of the page to be written on. It was more compact, easier to carry and importantly it was easy to conceal.

This is interesting because many of its new features mirror those of Amazon’s Kindle which can be read with one hand, is “lighter than a paperback” and offers the “lowest book prices”. It is strange to think that many of the new revolutionary features of the latest models are generic traits of any book such as page numbers or balancing the contrast between the text and the page to imitate the act of reading. The book is so accepted that we don’t think of how difficult it must be to replicate its inherent qualities.

As print culture spread and book production increased, more recognizable features were made standard such as page-numbering, paragraphs, titles and fonts. These developments might seem innocuous but they have an impact on how we read. Reading without page numbers or paragraphs has always been a problem with reading on-screen and fonts can change how we interpret a text.

To see the power fonts have we only have to look at the prevalence of Times New Roman. This is a font  we associate with the oldest form of literature, the name alone suggests a classical connection. But it was created in 1932 for the Times of London newspaper. It’s original purpose was legibility and economy but it has become the standard font for books, reports and academic works. Because of this association with tradition and formal works, we tend to take this type more seriously than others. When I write or read anything in this font, I take it more seriously than other works. Online newspapers such as The Guardian combine the Times New Roman font with sans-serif fonts like Helvetica.

But standard fonts are changing as rapidly as the book form. Times New Roman is a serif font which means that it has feet and arms at the ends of the letter. These give a more traditional appearance which does not always suit a webpage that is cluttered with numerous images, videos, links or widgets. Nor does the traditional appearance always suit a digital medium which thrives on newness and frequent updates. A popular sans-serif font is Calibri.

Calibri

It is in the digital world that we see the sans-serif font flourish. These are fonts that lack the feet or points of the serif font, keeping a simpler, sharper and more contemporary form. The advantage of these is their clear legibility on a webpage or smaller screens like those on smartphones. Steven Matteson, creative type director at Monotype discusses some of the fonts he designed use on the web.

The choice of font is something the average reader tends to dismiss until a hapless writer uses the comic-sans-serif script. There is no other font that generates the anger that comic sans-serif can. It goes beyond being a font that is not taken seriously, it can alienate the reader causing them to dislike the writer and their work. Comic Sans Serif is a font created by Vincent Connare in 1994 because the Times New Roman font was too severe for the user-friendly instructions of “Microsoft Bob”, an early Microsoft software.

The most dangerous text in the world.

Comic Sans Serif.

As the name suggests, the font was based on comic  books . The informal playfulness of the font was meant to convey ease and it became a regular feature in websites, shop signs and menus. But it became far too popular. Every party invitation, fast-food leaflet and even office notices were printed in the comic sans font.  Bancomicsans.com, founded in 2002 by Dave and Holly Combs, started an international campaign calling for a ban of comic sans-serif. Christine Erickson’sNot My Type: Why the Web Hates Comic Sans” on Mashable.com gives a in-depth analysis of why the font is so hated. The comic sans font was not only a marker that the text was not serious, but it belittled the subject matter and patronised the reader.

Once a font is chosen that is easy for the web-user to read, then the next problem is how the text is conveyed on the screen. The vertical scroll is the standard format since the word-processors of the 1960s. But this can be exhausting on the user’s eyes, giving them no natural marker to stop reading. As the text continuously scrolls, we cannot base our reading sentences or paragraph structures as they move as fluidly as the text. The reader has little control over the page. As the eReader attempts to replicate the sensation of reading, PDF’s try to imitate the interaction we have with books, copying the text layout and format of the printed page. The user can also make notes, highlight passages and page numbers can be found at the bottom of the text or through search-bars.

Web-developers are definitely getting closer to the sensation of reading a book and though there are some qualities that can never be matched, we can’t ignore the developments in the new medium. It is book-lovers who treasure the feeling of the book who will be best able to find ways to imitate that experience as closely as possible.

*Notes.

Firefox offers an add-on called ‘Font Finder’ which allows;

  1.  Any font on a page to be completely analyze
  2. Any piece of an element’s information can be copied to the clipboard
  3. Font-families can be disabled from the entire page
  4. To test degradation for cross-OS support ,Any active element can have any piece of the   font’s options (such as color, size or family) adjusted inline.

This is available at Addons.mozilla.org

Works Cited.

Combs, D, and H. Combs. Ban comic san. Bancomicsan.com. Web. April 15, 2013.

Erickson, C. “Not My Type: Why the Web Hates Comic Sans.” Mashable. Mashable.com. October 03, 2012. Web. April 15, 2013.

Garfield, S. Just My Type, a book about fonts. London ;Profile Books, 2011. Print.

“Kindle Store.” Amazon.com. n.d. Web. April 15, 2013.

Matteson, Steve. Interview by Lynn La. “Talking fonts with typeface designer, Steve Matteson”. Youtube, Youtube. April 12, 2012. Web. April 15, 2013.

“Microsoft Typography.” Microsoft. Microsoft n.d. Web. April 15, 2013.

The Guardian,The Guardian.co.uk. Web. April 15, 2013.

Vandendorpe, C. ” Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companionDLS/

Advertisements